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Operation Southern Watch was an operation conducted by Joint Task Force Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) with the mission of monitoring and controlling airspace south of the 32nd Parallel (extended to the 33rd Parallel in 1996) in Iraqmarker, following the 1991 Gulf War until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


Operation Southern Watch began on August 27, 1992 with the stated purpose of ensuring Iraqi compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 of April 5, 1991, which demanded that Iraq "immediately end this repression and express the hope in the same context that an open dialogue will take place to ensure that the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens are respected." Nothing in the resolution spelled out the Iraqi no-fly zones or Operation Southern Watch.

Iraqi military bombing and strafing attacks against the Shi’ite Muslims in Southern Iraq during the remainder of 1991 and during 1992 indicated Hussein chose not to comply with the U.N. resolution. Forces from Saudi Arabiamarker, the USA, the UK and France participated in Operation Southern Watch. The commander of JTF-SWA reported directly to US Central Command.

Military engagements in Southern Watch occurred with regularity, though they were usually only reported in the press occasionally. An intensification was noted prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though it was said at the time to just be in response to increasing activity by Iraqi air-defense forces. It is now known that this increased activity occurred during an operation known as Operation Southern Focus.

Military Operations

At first, Iraqi forces did not attack the Coalition aircraft. However, after the United Nations voted to maintain sanctions on Iraq, Iraqi forces began to fire on the aircraft and American E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft reported an unusual amount of Iraqi Air Force activity.

On December 27, 1992 a lone Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat crossed into the no-fly zone and flown towards a flight of USAF F-15 Eagles before turning north and using its superior speed to outrun the pursuing Eagles. Later in the day, several Iraqi fighters dodged back and forth across the 32nd parallel, staying out of missile range of American fighters. However, an Iraqi MiG-25 crossed too far and was trapped inside the 32nd parallel by a flight of USAF F-16 Falcons of the 33d Tactical Fighter Squadron. After receiving clearance to fire, the lead plane piloted by Lt Col Gary North fired a missile which destroyed the Iraqi fighter. This was the first combat kill by an F-16 in USAF service, and the first combat kill using the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.

On January 7, 1993, Iraq agreed to American, British and French demands to withdraw their surface-to-air missiles from below the 32nd parallel. However, they did not remove all of them and US President George H. W. Bush ordered US aircraft to bomb the remaining missile sites. On January 13, more than 100 American, British and French aircraft attacked Iraqi missile sites near Nasiriyahmarker, Samawahmarker, Najafmarker and Al-Amarahmarker. Around half the Iraqi sites south of the 32nd parallel were hit. On June 29, an American F-4G Phantom destroyed an Iraqi radar which had illuminated it, and a month later two US Navy EA-6B Prowlers fired AGM-88 missiles at more Iraqi radars.

The first nine months of 1994 were quiet, and the USAF began to withdraw forces from the region. In October, Saddam threatened to invade Kuwait unless UN sanctions were lifted, precipitating Operation Vigilant Warrior, the rushing of American troops to the Persian Gulf region. This served to increase Coalition resolve to enforce the no-fly zones and contain Iraqi aggression.

On June 25, 1996, a barracks at a US base in Khobar, Saudi Arabia housing personnel supporting Operation Southern Watch was blown up by a truck bomb. The blast killed 19 U.S. Air Force servicemen and a Saudi national, and injured 372 people. Who ordered the bombing is still in doubt, with suspicion being cast on Iraqmarker, Iranmarker or the Al-Qaida terrorist organization. This led to a re-alignment of American forces in Saudi Arabia to the remote Prince Sultan Air Base, away from population centers (Operation Desert Focus).

In August 1996, Iraqi forces invaded the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and American forces responded with Operation Desert Strike against targets in north and south Iraq. As a result, the no-fly zone was extended north to the 33rd parallel. This marked renewed conflict with Iraqi air defenses and several more radars were destroyed by F-16 fighters.

On December 15, 1998, France suspended participation in the no-fly zones, arguing that they had been maintained for too long and were ineffective. On December 16, Bill Clinton ordered Operation Desert Fox, a four-day air campaign against targets all over Iraq. This resulted in an increased levels of combat in the no-fly zones which lasted until 2003. On December 30, Iraqi SA-6 sites fired 6-8 missiles at American aircraft. F-16s responded by bombing the sites. On January 5, 1999, four Iraqi MiG-25s crossed into the no-fly zone, sparking aerial combat with 2 F-15 Eagles and 2 F-14 Tomcats. The American fighters fired six missiles at the Iraqi aircraft, but they were able to evade them all and escape back to the north.

On May 22, 2000 it was reported that since Operation Desert Fox there had been 470 separate incidents of AAA or surface-to-air missile fire at Coalition aircraft and Iraqi aircraft had violated the southern no-fly zone 150 times. Over the same time period, American aircraft had attacked Iraqi targets on 73 occasions.

On February 16, 2001, American and British aircraft launched attacks against six targets in southern Iraq, including command centers, radars and communications centers. Only about 40% of the targets were hit. This operation sparked scathing editorials in the foreign press, which reflected growing world skepticism about American-British policy towards Iraq. Incidents of Coalition planes coming under fire, followed by retaliatory air strikes began to happen on a weekly basis.

In May 2002, a Sudanese man with links to Al-Qaida fired a man-portable SA-7 Strela missile at an American F-15 Eagle fighter taking off from Prince Sultan Air Basemarker in Saudi Arabia. The missile missed the target and was not detected by the pilot or anyone at the base. Saudi police found the empty launcher in the desert, and a suspect was arrested in Sudanmarker a month later. He led police to a cache in the desert where a second missile was buried.

In June 2002, American and British forces stepped up attacks on Iraqi air defense targets all over southern Iraq. It was later revealed that this was part of a pre-planned operation called Southern Focus which had the goal of degrading the Iraqi air-defense system in preparation for the planned invasion of Iraq.

From August 1992 to early 2001, Coalition pilots had flown 153,000 sorties over southern Iraq.

From 1992 to 2003, various coalition naval assets supported Maritime Interdiction Operations in the Persian Gulf under the banners of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch.



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